Buddy, can you spare a design?

Are you an idea-hoarder?  Do you hold back waiting for the most opportune project or presentation to share your best thoughts?  Worse, do you withhold your creativity for when you’ve locked into a contract? Perhaps the urge to compete is hardwired into us as a survival mechanism.  We see the world of design as a finite pie and feel that somehow maneuvering to prevent others from getting a piece means there will be more (or any) left for us.  I even had a boss who once said, “it’s not so much that we win the job, as that others lose.” 

I don’t even know where to begin on the shortsightedness of this kind of red ocean thinking.  What it really shows is a lack of belief in the compelling power of your ideas. Fear that they might be pirated away and someone else will profit from your inspiration. Instead of talking about ideas, we do what I like to call defensive marketing and attempt to show a prospective client how much we outrank the competition via any number of self-serving metrics.  This is your wake up call: they don’t care. Since your competition is probably making the same unfavorable comparisons with you, all praise or criticism become neutralized.  Clients will really select an architect based on their ideas, including those that can positively affect their processes and bottom line.

Ideas are valuable, but only when they are shared.  What you are sharing is your ability to listen, gather and synthesize information and creatively interpret it to make an environment:
Your ideas are what differentiate you
1.  They are the personal connection that shows a client that you get it
2.  They are what showcase your individual personality and likability (a very underestimated criteria for architect selection).
3.  They speak to your culture and work process more than any marketing lingo ever could.

Your ideas inspire your clients to dream bigger

1.  They ask clients to question their own assumptions
2.  They make someone think differently about a problem
3.  They help to define a problem in a clear, concise way (and maybe even shed light on the fact that the client is trying to solve the wrong problem).
4.  They show what is possible.

Your ideas grow, stretch and multiply when you share them
1.  They are a renewable resource. No matter how many ideas you share, your mind will make more
2.  They create a flow of energy and creativity that grows in value
3.  They are the key to access old markets run by old ideas
4.  They enrich us by expanding our inspiration, reach and vision

Don’t hold back. Creativity and innovation is not a zero sum game.  There is always room for change and improvement. When you hoard your ideas, no one can benefit from them, not even you.

Obstacle or Opportunity?

You did it!  This is week nine, the final installment in the Breaking Points and Turning Points Novena.  Thank you for taking this journey and exploring the issues that affect your very identity as an architect and creative person.  This week, we focus on recognizing what are often considered necessary evils as the true roadblocks they are and eliminating them from our path.

Way up there on my list of thoroughly annoying turns of phrase is the application of the word “challenging” as a euphemism for everything from the truly problematic to the downright irritating.  It is my belief that people who use this term are tying to force themselves to be relentlessly positive in the face of a negative situation.  In other words, they don’t know the difference between an obstacle and an opportunity. 

Yes, there are times (daily) when we have to suck it up and deal with life’s messy surprises, but we shouldn’t have to deal with permanent or recurring frustrations as any kind of rite of passage.  In your quest to find and enriching and fulfilling career as an architect, there are only a few true rites of passage.  I have separated them into three groups:
The Quantitative Rites - the attainments - are the prescriptive things you have to do to be considered an architect from a literal perspective. All architects complete these rites.
1.  Graduate from an architecture program with a professional degree
2.  Qualify, through proper work experience, to take your licensing exams
3.  Successfully complete exams
4.  Maintain license in good standing, including continuing education

The Qualitative Rites
- the judgements- are the milestone achievements that gain you recognition in the eyes of your peers, clients and consultants.  Most successful architects complete these rites.
1.  Specialize in an area of design
2.  Publish or have articles published featuring you or your work
3.  Receive an award for design or professional merit
4.  Be sought out for your expertise and asked to participate on a board, committee or panel

The Influential Rites - the impacts -are the transformative moments you have where you bring your knowledge and experience to bear to positively influence the world around you.  Only truly great architects complete these rites-but all of us could-if we stopped viewing obstacles as challenges and wasting our creative energy.
1.  Inspire someone to see the world differently
2.  Contribute, through design, to the welfare of others
3.  Mentor others to help them achieve their fullest potential
4.  Be a voice, through supportive environments, to those who cannot or do not know how to request what they need
5.  Advocate, through the person that you are and the way you live your life, all the ways that design does matter

Notice how none of the rites of passage involve any of the following “challenges” I like to call the Seven Deadly Sins of Architecture:
1.  Endure abuse by clients, co-workers or superiors
2.  Manipulate clients, co-workers or superiors
3.  Overstrategize every action in an attempt to stay one step ahead
4.  Seek credit and recognition for accomplishments
5.  Blame others (even when deserved) for unfavorable situations or outcomes
6.  Overpromise or overcommit to projects, organizations or events
7.  Undercut perceived competition both in and out of the office

That’s because none of these things make us stronger or better in any way.  They frustrate and aggravate us and suck up all our creative energy. Far from being challenges, they are obstacles (many of them self-created) and the sooner you recognize them as such, the sooner you can overcome them and focus on your true architectural Rites of Passage.

I recently saw a photo of the destroyed Berlin Wall spray painted with the statement “We are the wall.”  Nothing could be more true.

Because Someone Had To: The Flawed Thinking of being a Trouper

In the last three weeks of our novena, we are focusing on transformation. Last week we looked at our career path and how to make the necessary adjustments to achieve maximum potential.  In week eight, we do the same for our work process.

At my old firm, there used to be a mantra uttered by the staff whenever confronted with an impossible situation.  “Get ‘er done,” frazzled architects and interns would say, as if a results-oriented approach would make the crushing deadline, impossible budget, or demanding client seem less overwhelming.  The objective was to hunker down and focus on the most streamlined path possible to meeting the objective, then put your nose to the grindstone and crank it out.  There was a certain pride, even, in the ability to be uberproductive in the face of such odds.

How many times have you found yourself faced with a problem for which you were ill-trained, understaffed and poorly equipped and just muddled through and made up a way? Woe to anyone who dare criticize the final product, means, or method, so proud are you to have accomplished the task.  If you feel like an innovator in situations such as these, you’d be right, but only in a can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees kind of way.

You feel proud of yourself for accomplishing something in a jerry-rigged half-assed way- because someone had to.

Perhaps it is our experience of studio instruction, where professors try to avoid placing too many parameters on the task at hand in order to encourage individual exploration.  We are just a little too comfortable as architects with working with an ill-defined problem and making the best of it.  A lot too willing to make sacrifices in order to get the job done (hello, all-nighter mentality). The trouble is we are diverting our creative energy to dealing with procedures instead of devoting it to design.  We make managing the schedule and the budget the design problem, not the design issues.  We’re rewarded for this flawed thinking when the metrics of success for a project are: 1. On Time and 2. On Budget and the people assessing our performance have taken those two measures completely out of the context of design.  It’s time to realize that being a trouper means only that you were willing to be put in a box and not complain about it.  What kind of team player does that really make you?  How to break free:

Don’t accept the premise.  Dealing with impossible design parameters is exciting, challenging and opens the door to innovation. Dealing with impossible demands from clients, co-workers and bosses is draining, stressful, and leads you to keep recycling the same solutions over and over again because you know they will work.  Do not confuse the two. 
1.  Schedule, budget, and aesthetics are interdependent variables of the design problem. They are not design problems in and of themselves. 
2. Use the pre-design phase to determine design parameters that will meet schedule and budget goals.  3.  Stay focused on the design problem, knowing that these are addressed. 
4. Start saying no to the things that aren’t about solving the design problem.  These things are not only distractions, but they affect all of your variables, therefore compromising the design itself.
5. One you define the problem to be solved, don’t dilute your efforts by allowing others to introduce new problems.

Always take time as a team to revisit the view of your project from 35,000 feet.  This helps everyone understand the goals and big design ideas and stop obsessing about the details that are actually off the reservation.  It's easy to get distracted by concerns crises that seem critical to one or more team members, but responding to panic with panic sends the project off on a tangent.  Instead, ask how a given change in direction or new area of exploration will help meet the overall goals.  If it doesn’t, then it’s a waste of time and money.  How’s that for meeting those on-time/on-budget metrics?